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Great charitable organizations in NYC, and how to volunteer to help them

When it comes to effecting local change, these groups in the five boroughs are doing great work

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For New Yorkers looking to rally behind a cause—who may also be new to the world of organizing—there is no shortage of local advocacy groups that need your help. These five organizations, like many others doing similar work in New York, support large communities with relatively small staffs and budgets.

They’ve also been offering support in myriad ways, whether it’s supporting police reform in Brooklyn, meeting with LGBT seniors in Staten Island, or creating green jobs in the South Bronx.

So if you’re looking to make a difference with a group in your borough, read on—these are some of the best groups to follow.

Anthonine Pierre, Brooklyn Movement Center's lead organizer, at the group's Bed-Stuy headquarters.

Brooklyn Movement Center

Headquartered inside a stately, freestanding mansion in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn Movement Center seeks to engage with area residents as well as those in nearby Crown Heights. “We saw there was a real need for a staffed nonprofit to be doing movement-building work,” says Anthonine Pierre, BMC’s lead community organizer.

From its founding in 2011, BMC has rooted its organizing around the broader social and economic concerns of Central Brooklyn residents, such as educational self-determination, environmental justice, food sovereignty, and police accountability. “We’re a multi-issue organization, which is a little uncommon,” Pierre says. “But our focus is developing the leadership capacity of people in Central Brooklyn to be able to do social justice work on the issues they care about.”

Large-scale change, from BMC’s perspective, can start locally. For instance, BMC has organized “movement building” work around training and supporting parents to lead school change efforts within the local school district; hosting political education and training groups around police accountability; and also working to establish the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op.

BMC also translates its local work to a larger audience through media and journalism: its digital platform, Brooklyn Deep, looks into under-reported issues in Central Brooklyn. The site also produces the Third Rail podcast, which tackles everything from gentrification in Bed-Stuy to immigration issues post-election.

BMC is a membership-led organization—membership costs $60 a year and the funds go toward supporting the organization’s work. (There is a sponsored membership for those who are unable to pay the yearly fee.) Organizers work with new members to see how their skills can be put to use within the organization, whether that means social media help or brainstorming for an upcoming fundraiser campaign.

How to help: “The number one thing we’re looking for are people who are really passionate about the issues we work on,” Pierre says. “We always need people, and money. You’d be surprised how much poster board costs.”

Members of Sustainable South Bronx in the group's Manhattan field office.

Sustainable South Bronx

Sustainable South Bronx was founded 15 years ago by Majora Carter, a Hunts Point native who made a name for herself as a fierce environmental activist. In its early years, the organization focused on environmental advocacy and building more green space in the borough, says Irene Branche, chief development officer of SSBx.

“Over time, we realized that we’re advocating for all this great work to be done—shouldn’t we be training the local community to get these jobs?” she explains. And so the organization evolved from an advocacy group into a workforce program.

Now, SSBx’s signature program is green jobs training, a 12-week, full-time seminar that covers everything from how to write a resume to securing certification in green construction and maintenance industries. Another resource, the New York City Cool Roof Program, is a transitional employment program in which members apply a rooftop coating to buildings to improve energy efficiency.

Programs that address “the double bottom line” of both environmental and economic concerns are a signature of Sustainable South Bronx, Branche says, but she notes those skills can apply across many types of jobs.

SSBx is primarily privately funded, but its organizers recently applied for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. But the Trump administration could affect the group’s monetary sources, as Trump plans to slash funding for the EPA, leaving organizations across the country—including SSBx—facing an uncertain future.

“We feel fortunate to be in a city with a focus on sustainability and lifting up our vulnerable neighbors, so hopefully local politics will win the day,” Branche says. “But when big federal funding sources [like the EPA] get cut it has a trickle-down effect, and locally we’re all competing for fewer dollars.”

How to help: Donations don’t need to come in the form of money. SSBx needs clothing appropriate for job interviews or construction sites, as well as breakfast and lunch food. “If you want to donate a big box of granola bars, that would be a fantastic help,” Branche says.

SSBx holds a few volunteer days every year when people can help coat rooftops, and every weekend, volunteers can join SSBx students as they do tasks like installing tree guards or cleaning up a park.

Volunteers for the Coalition for the Homeless's Grand Central Food Program hand out supplies in Lower Manhattan.

Coalition for the Homeless

Coalition for the Homeless was founded in conjunction with a 1981 New York court decision that dramatically changed the face of homelessness in the city. The “right to shelter” act required both New York City and New York State to provide shelter for homeless men and ultimately paved the way for further legal victories ensuring the right to shelter for homeless women, children, and families.

“Our origins are really in the advocacy sphere,” says Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst for the organization. “But since then, we have added 11 direct-service programs that meet the immediate needs of homeless and low-income New Yorkers.”

Those include the Grand Central Food Program, which has delivered 1,000 meals to vulnerable New Yorkers every night for the past 31 years, as well as the Eviction Prevention Program, which serves 800 families a year with one-time rental grants if they’ve fallen behind in payments. Coalition for the Homeless has found programs like this are much more cost-effective than shelter, “because prevention is not only compassionate but fiscally sound,” Simone says.

Rapidly rising rents have contributed to what Simone calls the “greatest homelessness crisis since the Great Depression.” Homeless New Yorkers cover every demographic.

“Many people in shelter are working, and still cannot afford rent, and a disturbingly high percentage of renters in New York City do not have adequate reserves if they face any financial setback,” she explains. That has resulted in 24,000 homeless children now in the shelter system, most in families who also need shelter.

Simone recommends New Yorkers keep tabs on policy that focuses on “housing-based solutions” to address the current crisis, as opposed to simply opening more homeless shelters (as Mayor de Blasio has recently proposed).

The Coalition organizes rallies and letter-writing campaigns around Home Stability Support, a new statewide rent supplement designed for those eligible for public assistance benefits facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing. The organization also hosts rallies every Wednesday morning at Governor Cuomo’s NYC office, in order to pressure him to release promised funds for supportive housing.

“Everyone can give something, whether it’s signing an online petition, donating time, or donating money,” Simone says. “We appreciate any way we can engage more New Yorkers in the fight to end homelessness.”

How to help: The organization holds annual coat and food drives, and also has a need for high-quality women’s professional clothing, particularly sized for larger women. The organization also needs drivers with a New York license to help them deliver food in the evenings.

Both individuals and corporations can support the coalition’s job-training programs, which include one-on-one career counseling. New Yorkers can also sign up as volunteer shelter monitors to “talk to clients about their concerns and inspect conditions,” Simone says.

Ralph Vogel, executive director of the Pride Center of Staten Island, in the group's St. George headquarters.

Staten Island Pride Center

The Staten Island Pride Center emerged from the Staten Island AIDS Task Force about 10 years ago. The task force was founded in the 1980s, when the city was in the throes of the HIV/AIDS crisis and there were very few resources or support networks in Staten Island.

“Staten Island is a borough that’s a bit different than some of the other boroughs,” says Ralph Vogel, founder and executive director of the Pride Center. “Our community often feels invisible. The center brings visibility to who we are.”

Back in the ’80s, according to Vogel, there were no gay bars or gay associations on Staten Island—something that remains true to this day. “This is really the only show in town,” he says. “We’re the only program [in Staten Island] that does LGBT-specific services.”

Those services include after-school programming that provides “a safe, welcoming space for youth beginning to explore who they are,” Vogel says, as well as a transgender support group for both kids and their parents, mental health programs, and senior programs. “Some of the seniors are isolated or alone; they have not partnered in the same way other generations could,” Vogel says.

The center hosts a senior gathering three times a week. The center’s LGBT library, open to the public, holds more than 4,000 books, and Vogel believes it is the largest collection of LGBT civil rights material in New York.

Post-election, the center has become a place for “members to gather to discuss what they can do proactively to influence agendas going forward locally,” Vogel says. He notes that the center only recently added its transgender parents group after many parents started getting in touch with the organization. “We try to respond to the ongoing needs of the community… we’re not going anywhere,” he says.

How to help: The Pride Center will need support for the annual Staten Island Pride Fest, which happens in May. The week-long fest attracts as many as 4,000 people, so the center could use assistance in organizing and running events.

Volunteers can also help the center train therapy dogs to serve clients there as well as at local hospitals and nursing homes. Volunteers may also man the front desk, which is often where newcomers first look for information about the center’s resources.

Members of the NICE community at the group's community center in Jackson Heights.

New Immigrant Community Empowerment

New Immigrant Community Empowerment (known as NICE) has been helping the city’s recent immigrants since 1999. “At that time, there was no organizing happening with new immigrant communities,” explains Manuel Castro, the organization’s executive director.

Based in Jackson Heights, one of the city’s most diverse communities, NICE initially focused on providing resources and support to the neighborhood’s immigrant community (and those throughout Queens), particularly addressing hate crimes or hate speech. After 9/11, NICE became a formal nonprofit not only addressing those issues, but also organizing directly with the day laborers living in Jackson Heights.

Through that organization work, NICE realized day laborers—who often waited for work at the 69th Street day laborer stop known as La Parada—needed some of the most support. To serve that community, NICE began offering job-training programs and eventually opened a community job center, which provides coffee and a space for workers to wait for potential employers.

It also serves as a place for people to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Besides the job center, NICE offers legal services for immigration cases, along with workforce development that offers access to health and safety trainings and certification. Membership is free for immigrants; there are now around 1,600 members, supported by a staff of nine.

In the current political climate, “there’s a sense of heightened awareness,” says Castro. “People don’t have anywhere else to go… new immigrants don’t have much of a social safety net and rely on community organization for support.” With that responsibility, NICE plans to establish a “Know Your Rights” training program around other immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of New York. “We’re getting ready to step up,” Castro says.

How to help: NICE uses volunteers to assist with job trainings, while volunteers with legal expertise can also help on immigration cases or worker complaints about wage theft. If you’re interested in helping the organization expand its “Know Your Rights” campaign to other immigrant neighborhoods of New York, contact NICE.

“We welcome any kind of support,” Castro says. NICE is also raising money through GoFundMe to support its community job center—$5,000 will be matched dollar for dollar for those who donate before March 31st.